Pocock: Well, people will commemorate it in the way they choose. But on the exam question as to whether this is a conflict worth remembering, from where I sit: Yes it is.
Because it helped to define an emerging nation in North America that we value and secondly, it did lead to a long and really important peace that developed into an alliance and an economic partnership that is very significant.
The Globe: How big was the British force?
Pocock: There were 2,000 British regulars in the whole of the colony at the time, which is not many.
The Globe: That’s an interesting point you raise. What proportion of the fighting was done by the British?
Pocock: I think quite a lot was done by regular forces. There were Canadian militia and irregulars, as it were, helping, but Major-General [Isaac]Brock was a regular army man, line commander, had a couple of line regiments under his direct command and quite a lot of country to cover.
He took Fort Detroit from the Americans and had to march back to Queenston Heights for the second encounter and of course further up the river at Montreal was another regular regiment. But lots of Canadian militia involved too.
The Globe: There is a new book out by Alan Taylor, called The Civil War of 1812. Reading on the period, one is reminded the war was badly executed at times. Do you have any opinion as to whether the war was well executed or not? We’ve been taught it was definitely well executed in the sense we achieved our objectives.
Pocock: There’s a very interesting PBS documentary made as a joint venture between the U.S. public broadcasting system and some Canadian stations, of which I’ve seen the first installment about the land war in 1812.
When the Americans tried to invade Canada at three different points. One was at Queenston Heights and was further up into Montreal. And indeed there was meant to be an invasion launched from the Fort Detroit side. And certainly the impression given was the American army at the time was very badly led by each of its individual generals and some bold action by Brock with smaller forces was a) able to take Fort Detroit and b) repel the invading forces at Queenstown Heights.
So I think the United States wasn’t a huge military power at the time. It had a small army and when you look at the map they’re covering very large distances in what was extremely difficult terrain in those days. So I think a measure of incompetence and bad luck and poor logistics and under provisioning and all of the usual things that plagued armies at that time.
But at the same time elements of competence and grit on the part of the defenders went into the equation. When we then attacked Washington, I think that was as an amphibious operation – navy and army – and that wasn’t badly executed.
But there was a problem in 1814 in New Orleans when the British army attacked the city there ... after a peace treaty had already been signed. But of course communications in those days being what they were, the attacking general didn’t know that. But that attack was not well executed by British forces, and casualties by the standards of the war were quite high. So it ended on not only an unnecessary but a tragic note.
The Globe: Who won the war in your opinion?
Pocock: Well, I don’t think there was a clear winner or loser. It’s probably easier to say who didn’t get what they wanted. Well if the invasion of Canada was part of the objective of the United States, that certainly didn’t work. So that was a failure.
In terms of the impact on the United States economy, that was very severe. There was a naval blockade instituted, particular as the Royal Navy was able to move assets across the ocean from France to initiate the blockade. By 1814, New England was almost up in arms against its own government, because the economy there had virtually collapsed.